Are Sharks Really the Biggest Threat at the Beach?

Stephen P. Leatherman—

Beaches are the most popular recreational areas in the United States; more than 200 million Americans trek to the shore each year. Beaches help fulfill our desire to return to nature. While families reminisce, they often recall their beach vacations as being among the most memorable. Yet ocean beaches can also be hazardous, and few people understand or know how to recognize potential trouble.

Humans have a primordial fear of sharks—these great teethy predators. Although gruesome shark attacks do occur, sharks are statistically not a real danger for beachgoers. On average, only one person a year is killed by sharks in the United States, and most of these people are far offshore surfing or diving for abalone. Far more people are killed by bee stings, bathtub falls, and lightning strikes than by shark attacks. In fact, you have a better chance of winning the state lottery than being killed by a shark.

The real threat to swimmers and bathers at beaches are rip currents, often misnamed undertow or rip tides. These powerful, narrow currents originate close to shore as the water from breaking waves rushes offshore in particular locations along the beach. These nearly invisible currents are responsible for about 100 drownings and more than 50,000 rescues annually!

Graphics tell the tale—rips are the real killer.Weather and Marine Related Deaths


So what can you do to keep yourself safe from rip currents?

Look for signs of rips before entering the ocean

  • Change in water color from the surrounding water (either murkier from sediments, seaweed, and flotsam, or darker because of the depth of the underwater channel where the rip flows).
  • Gap in the breaking waves, where the rip is forcing its way seaward through the surf zone.
  • Agitated (choppy) surface that extends beyond the breaker zone.
  • Floating objects moving steadily seaward.
  • Temperature of water—water in the rip may be colder than the surrounding water.

What to do if caught in a rip current

  • Don’t panic, which wastes your energy and keeps you from thinking clearly.
  • Don’t attempt to swim against the current directly back to shore.
  • Swim parallel to shore until you are out of the current as the offshore flow is restricted to the narrow rip neck.
  • Float calmly out with the rip if you cannot break out by swimming perpendicular to the current. When it subsides, just beyond the surf zone, swim diagonally back to shore.
  • Wave your arms in the direction of the lifeguards.

Stephen P. Leatherman, popularly known as Dr. Beach, announces his “Top Beaches List” on national television every Memorial Day weekend. He is chair, professor, and director, International Hurricane Center and Laboratory for Coastal Research, Florida International University and the author or editor of fifteen books on coastal science, including Dr. Beach’s Survival Guide.


Featured image of great white shark in South Africa courtesy of travelbagltd / flickr

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